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From “listening” to “filling in”: where “La Soeur Écoute” Teaches Us to Listen


DH Listening

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the second installment in the “DH and Listening” blog series for World Listening Month, our annual forum that prompts readers to reflect on what it means to listen. This year’s forum considers the role of “listening” in the digital humanities (DH, for short). We at Sounding Out! are stoked to hear about (and listen to) all the new projects out there that archive sound, but we wonder whether the digital humanities engage enough with the the notion of listening. After all, what’s a sound without someone to listen to it?

Next week Fabiola Hanna will be reflecting upon what DH means when it talks about participatory practices. Jacqueline Wernimont from the Vibrant Lives team shared with us last week about the ethics of listening to 20th century sterilization victims’ records. Today, Emmanuelle Sonntag introduces us to a figure from a long time ago, “la soeur écoute,” a nun whose was responsible for sitting in and listening when another nun had a visitor. As she reflects on this nun’s job, she senses her notion of listening (especially in the context of the digital) change.

Sit down, fade into the background, and listen closely. Mother Superior will want all the details.–Liana Silva, Managing Editor

Who is she?

At the beginning of my doctoral research on listening, while I looked in French dictionaries for the word “écoute” I came upon, almost systematically, the expression “soeur écoute.” For example, this dictionary says “soeur écoute” is a nun who, in a monastery, accompanies in the parlor room another nun who gets visited.

This is how I met this cloistered nun called “la soeur écoute” (literally, “the sister listening”, or “sister listen”, if a literal translation has any sense here). The term is “vieilli” (outdated), as written in the dictionaries, but strangely, they insist on mentioning her again and again, even in 2016 editions. She is a listener, just as you would say, “I’m a librarian”. However I prefer to say “she is listener”, without the “a”, even if it is not proper English. In French, elle est écoute, and believe me, this resonates amazingly. To me, the “soeur écoute” is a fascinating woman because her activity has ceased to exist in monasteries, allowing me to imagine her experience, behavior, life and occupation as a cloistered nun.

Here she is at work. A visitor is knocking on the monastery’s door  — can you hear it? The “soeur écoute” welcomes the visitor and leads him/her through the place until they reach the parlor. The room is divided in two spaces by a metal or wooden grille, the sacred one and the secular one. The “soeur écoute” has the visitor sitting in front of the grille, on the secular side of the room. On the other side, the nun who is being visited is already sitting, waiting for the “soeur écoute” to pull aside the curtain that hides the grille. The “soeur écoute” then sits next to the visited nun, slightly in the background. During the conversation, she neither speaks nor moves nor takes any notes. She just listens. When the session is finished, she closes the curtain and leads the visitor to the exit. Later, she promptly reports what she heard to the mother abbess.

The word “écoute” has three moments in its evolution over time (of course with some overlapping). In order: someone, somewhere, something. “Someone” refers to the 12th century (“écoute,” as a person, is attested in France at the beginning of this century), and “somewhere” to the 15th (meaning the place from where you listen). Then, listening considered as “something” (the “thing” you must have to be able to hear attentively) goes back the 19th. In our common comprehension of what listening is, we are now entirely in the “something” part, with no overlapping at all. For my research, the minute I started to look at my “object” as a “person,” my thinking shifted. The “soeur écoute” rung a bell: we are in the “something” timeframe of the notion of listening, and this could blind us in our comprehension of what listening in 2016 really is.

Listening Behind Bars

Firstly, the “soeur écoute” is also called, in some sources, “auscultatrice.” For example, I found a mention (with a missing “t”) of such nuns in a primary source of 1705 concerning the Ursulines de la Congrégration de Paris. The document tells neither how the “auscultatrice” should behave, nor the technical rules to apply, such as the distance between the grille and the visited nun, or the distance between the “auscultatrice” and the visited nun. But it does indicate how the visited nun should behave with her. In the section called “De la manière dont les Religieuses se doivent comporter au Parloir” (How nuns must behave in the parlor), we read:

Règlemens des religieuses Ursulines, 1705, p. 95.

“They will be humble and reserved in their behavior. They will avoid inappropriate gestures, as well as the distraction of sight, bursts of laughing, speaking loudly or impetuously, although they always are expected to speak in an intelligible way, so that the auscultatrice can hear them” (my translation).

The term “auscultatrice” is reminiscent of the very roots of the word “écoute,” the Latin auscultare, a combination of “(…)auris, a word that gives the first part of the verb auscultare,” and “a tension, an intention and an attention, which the second part of the term marks’, as the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy explains.

In the case of the Ursulines, it is a paradox, as the word “écoute” had been used since the 12th century, and the expression “soeur écoute” commonly used since the end of the Middle Ages. I suspect a marketing reason here: “auscultatrice” sounds much more strict and in-depth than “soeur écoute,” providing the idea of a pure and original listening, if not conservative.

Second, the “soeur écoute” is part-time. A primary source dating of 1628, in a 1876 book, mentions 25 nuns interviewed about their occupations inside the Sainte-Praxède monastery. Seven among them claim to be or to have been “auscultatrice” (p. 52–54, 193, 198, 212, 234). All of them double it up with another job, such as nurse or organist. Some of them also claim being “auscultatrice de la porte” (auscultatrice of the door) or “auscultatrice du parloir” (auscultatrice in the parlor). The grille, the door and her body (when she strides along the monastery), are her work instruments, her listening prostheses.

Third, the “soeur écoute” appears to have amazing skills. In the Dictionnaire françois, by Pierre Richelet (1680), she is called “tierce”, meaning she is the third element in the triangle of the setting in the parlor, hence, a mediation :

Dictionnaire françois, 1680, p. 448

Also, the plural “ÉCOUTES“ (written in capital, as to demonstrate a precedence on the singular form) : “this word is used to designate people placed to listen and to discover what is happening” (my translation).

Dictionnaire françois, 1680, p. 265

She indeed has an ability to discover what is happening, by watching, observing, monitoring, keeping an eye, but also by aggregating the data she is collecting.

The parlor in motion

As I was writing a few pages devoted to the “soeur écoute” for my dissertation, I stumbled upon an oral history documentary,funded by the Illinois Humanities Council, called Chosen (Custody of the Eyes). As Abbie Reese describes on her website, it is “a collaborative documentary film  — a portrait made with and about a young woman transitioning into a cloistered religious community that follows an ancient rule.” Reese explains:

The severity of their lives is striking. During the four visits permitted each year, the nuns and their loved ones are separated by a metal grille and are not supposed to reach through the bars to touch one another.

Today, this order, as others, uses “extern sisters” to provide the link with the outside world.

Intrigued by this grille, reminiscence of the “soeur écoute,” I watched the 8-minute demo and was stricken by two moments. The first one, at 2:20, shows Abbie Reese in the parlor, with a computer, in front of the metal grille. Behind it, one of the cloistered nuns reaches the computer through the bars in order to plug in a cable. At 07:55, this time from the point of view of the Poor Clare nuns, we see the parlor with the grille covered by a green curtain. A nun walks in, pulls aside the curtain. Then, at 08:02, from the secular side again, a nun closes the curtain while saying : “you can turn it off!”.

What did we just witness? A cloistered contemplative nun reached through a metal grille to transfer some video files into a computer. It is here, around this gesture, that I see digital humanities coming into the picture along with listening. Of course I’m not building a case on the cable itself, or on the video files. It is the gesture more than anything else that draws my attention: the exact moment where the nun reaches the computer through the bars.

A surveilled sequence of events

As it comes from the outside world, by definition a visit to the monastery disturbs the extremely scheduled sequence of events and rules giving rythm to the monastery’s life. From this point of view, the “soeur écoute” is the only one, in the enclosure of the monastery, in power of keeping watch (“épier”) on what is around her. In All Ears: The Aesthetics of Espionage (English edition to be released in December 2016), Peter Szendy evokes the “écoute” (as a person) as the one whose job is to practice an auditive surveillance (“celui ou celle qui pratique la surveillance auditive”). Yet here, with this listening nun, we are reaching a listening that is much more than aural.

What does she do as a job? Surveillance? Espionage?  I would rather say that her listening is a lookout (“affût”), a sentinel (“sentinelle”) as well as a watch (“guet”) — I have to say here the English language lacks in qualifying precisely those notions. In this regard, Kate Lacey’s explorations around “listening in”, “listening out” and “mediated listening” is, to my understanding, an indication of the difficulty to define “the act of listening.” However, there is another aspect in which the “soeur écoute” appears as unbeatable : her ability to report. I suppose the relevance of the report depended on the visitor, so the nun had to decide whether or not to report to the abbess.

In French, there is a word to designate those who report: “rapporteur/rapporteuse.” When I was a kid, in a French school somewhere in France, being a “rapporteuse” was an insult. As I’m writing this, I suddenly remember the litany that was sung through the school’s playground against the poor one who was accused (I use the feminine here in order to relate with the nun, but it could be a boy of course). It was always “delivered” with the same few music notes and tone, by three, four, five kids, arm in arm, sweeping the playground with this human singing barrier of accusation:

Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ — (She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬)

All this to say that the “soeur écoute” reminds us that listening is linked to the act of reporting. In Listen: A History of Our Ears, Peter Szendy underlines listening as being not at all benevolent, the kindly meaning being a very late one in the long evolution of the notion. Quite the contrary, argues the French philosopher and musicologist, listening holds a great amount of perversity. When observing the “soeur écoute”, this is what we see: a woman whose listening is not kind.

She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬

Reaching through the bars of the grille

Let us revisit the video at 02:20: observing, again and again, the gesture of the nun with the camera cable. Her body and the grille. Her face and attitude. What she says. How she tries to plug the cable. Her hands and arms. Her fingers. Her way to deal with the grille. The nun is in movement between (and with) those technological objects, digitally ensuring the mediation between both worlds. In Listen, Szendy argues (in an ironic passage of the book, hence difficult to quote) that listening is “a matter of touching.” He stands up for “listening with our fingertips” (in the French edition, slightly different: “l’écoute au bout des doigts”). While doing so, Szendy plays wonderfully with the word “digital.” In French it has two meanings : “digital” refers to the fingers, but also to the digital, like the one of the digital technologies (although more often translated as “numérique”). The “digital” intervention of “sister listener” then takes a new dimension, between fingers and technology.

She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬

In All Ears, Szendy highlights listening as a kind of intelligence activity, “activité de renseignement” in French. Yet, “renseignement” also means filling in a metadata, or, if you prefer, a field that describes a digital object. Like the nun trying to plug in the cable. The “soeur écoute” then appears as a figure of a “filling in” processes and practices : while listening, she also informs, and in-forms.

The grille and the grid

I just read the fascinating story around a visit in a cloistered monastery close to my home in Montréal. Again a grille. Again a green curtain. This time though, the nuns reach easily through the bars, shaking hands. Nuns have the internet. They know how to catch the rumor of the world, if they wish to.

My partner told me recently: “it seems you are building a case on someone whose job does not exist anymore to reflect on something very contemporary, the digital.” Yes, it is exactly that. This is what is so liberating with the “soeur écoute.” And no, it is not exactly that, my dear: I’m not sure she does not exist anymore. What if a little bit of a “soeur écoute” would be in all of us? In other other words, what if the way she listens would inform how we listen today, making the connection between listening as person (the “someone”), listening as place (the “somewhere”), and listening as object (the “something”)?

I see the “soeur écoute” as a reading grid, or framework, which forces to rethink listening and its role. Reaching through the bars, she helps expand the study of listening beyond its sonorous contours. She encourages to consider listening in order to include the non-sonorous aspects of “keeping watch” and “sentineling”. Going from one world to another, from one side to another, pulling aside curtains, she urges us, “researchers of listening”, being “tierce” and part-time in our methods and attitudes. Even if it has to go such as far as considering listening as a counterpoint to sound. After all this, maybe, starting to auscultate the relationship between listening and digital humanities.

I have to go. I have put Listening under custody. I have a cable to plug, and a report to write.

I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬

Featured image: P***

Emmanuelle Sonntag defines herself as a “knowledge organizer.” She offers consultancy services in communication, education, curriculum design, information management and knowledge mobilization while pursuing her PhD in Sociology on… Listening at Université du Québec à Montréal. She tweets on listening, sounds, stories and other noises @lvrdg.

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Make a Noise Joyful: Cirm in the Old English Exodus


Medieval Sound

Series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

When the narrator of the Old English poem Exodus declares “Gehyre se ðe wille” (Let him hear who will), what sounds is he asking us to attend to? [Note: Text from Peter Lucas’s edition, 7b.  All translations are author’s own.] This post argues that the Old English noun cirm (noise, shout, outcry) challenges our conceptualization of noise. In the Anglo-Saxon corpus, cirm most often refers to the indistinguishable, non-linguistic hum of a crowd, rather than the meaningful utterance of an individual. This accords with the popular view of noise in sound studies: whether medieval or modern, noise (as opposed to meaningful sound) is associated with alterity, disruption, and violence.

However, and strikingly, in the Old English Exodus, words for noise describe not only the terrible sounds of the drowning Egyptians as the roaring waters of the Red Sea rush over them, but also the survival of the Israelites. I argue that this cirm is a mark of the Israelites’ triumphal assertion of their continued presence and plenitude, a celebration of the fact that they can still be a multitude despite captivity. That cirm may not sit easily within our definition of noise should provoke not a redefinition of cirm’s joyful use, but a reconceptualization of Anglo-Saxon noise.

'Amalek Attacks Israel and Is Defeated', in the Old English Hexateuch, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B IV

‘Amalek Attacks Israel and Is Defeated’, in the Old English Hexateuch, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B IV

What is Noise?

“Noise” has a range of meanings, but most often implies “unwanted sound” as R. Murray Schafer argues in The Soundscape (73).  Following the work of Jacques Attali and Jeffrey J. Cohen, noise has been associated with alterity, difference, and monstrosity. Noise, as opposed to sound, may be non-linguistic or disordered: nonsense, babble, the roar of a jet engine. According to David Novak’s contribution to Keywords in Sound, noise is not present in nature, but is created by modern technology (129). In the modern world, noise is often considered negative: cities have rules about noise pollution, apartment buildings set quiet hours, and airplane passengers don noise-cancelling headphones. In the pre-industrial age, noise was not exempt from criticism, though the word could also be applied to more pleasant sounds, like birdsong.

In the European Middle Ages, Valerie J, Allen argues in “Broken Air,” noise was often figured as violent, transgressing boundaries, inappropriately closing the distance between sound producer and sound receiver (310 and 317-318). According to Macrobius, it was not silence that was the opposite of sound, but noise (311). Grammar, which was “devoted to the pursuance of ratio through sound,” was ethical; noise was therefore considered “a kind of audible violence; corruption [wa]s something one can hear” (305). But some medieval noises were more ambiguous: the Old English word dream (joy, joyful sound) could also be applied to the terrible sounds of Hell or the terror of Judgment Day, as in Kazutomo Karasawa’s analysis in “OE dream for Horrible Noise in the Vercelli Homilies.”  Likewise, “clamor,” which originated as a (mostly) negative noise, became an important legal instrument, as discussed by Richard Barton in “Making a Clamor to the Lord: Noise, Justice and Power in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century France.”  But in general, we tend to assume medieval noise is negative, or marks its producer as other.

Noises in Exodus

The Old English Exodus, found in the c. 1000 manuscript known as Bodleian MS Junius 11, is a notoriously difficult and complex poetic adaptation of the Old Testament Exodus 12-14. The author and date of composition are unknown, though it is often considered quite early, perhaps as early as the eighth century as Paul Remley and Lucas argue. Few institutions were rich enough to own a complete Bible. The author of Exodus may have had access to a written Latin version of Exodus, or may have been exposed to the text via the liturgy, especially the liturgy of the Easter Vigil.


The Junius Manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Junius 11, pp. 84-5

Exodus delights in sensory details, but until recently, I had always thought of Exodus as primarily visual – the gleaming of war-gear, the glittering of Egyptian spoils washed up on the shore, tents and a pillar of cloud to protect the Israelites from the desert sun, and a pillar of fire to guide them. But the poet is also attentive to the larger sensory world, including the world of sound and noise.  Those who accept the poet’s opening challenge to his audience (“Gehyre se ðe wille!” [Let him hear who will!]) will recognize that the poem is in fact filled with sounds – the battle trumpets that provide order and structure to the movements of the army, the rushing and later silencing of waters, the terrible evening songs of wolves eager for battle, the awful rasping of the blade Abraham draws to sacrifice Isaac in the poem’s digression on the patriarchs, the triumphant songs produced by Israelite men and women in praise of God after the Egyptians are defeated. In what follows, I focus on the multiple deployments of a single word for noise (cirm), applied to both Israelites and Egyptians, asking what this word can reveal about Anglo-Saxon conceptions of noise.

It has often been remarked that the poet resists easy distinctions between Israelites and Egyptians, applying similar vocabulary to both, and this is certainly illustrated by the poet’s sonic play. In a climactic scene near the end of the poem, the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea is accompanied by horrible noises:

Storm up gewat

heah to heofonum,     herewopa mæst;

laðe cyrmdon     (lyft up geswearc)

fægum stæfnum.     Flod blod gewod:

randbyrig wæron rofene,     rodor swipode

meredeaða mæst.     Modige swulton,

cyningas on corðre.     Cyrm swiðrode

wæges æt ende;     wigbord scinon.

[A storm went up high to the heavens, the greatest of cries of the army; the hostile ones cried out with doomed voices (the air grew dark above). Blood pervaded the water: ramparts were broken, the greatest of sea-deaths lashed the sky. The brave ones died, kings in a troop. The noise fell silent at the end of the water; battle-boards shone. (460b-467; emphasis added)]


The Junius Manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Junius 11, p. 66.

Cirm occurs twice in this passage, first as a verb (cyrmdon) and then as a noun (cyrm). The manuscript reading in 466b is cyre (choice). Lucas emends to cyrm because cyre is not a poetic word, and I would argue that the echo with the Israelites’ cyrm (107) must be deliberate. Even if we accept MS cyre, the passage still includes the verb cyrmdon (462a), and other sonic vocabulary (herewopa, “army’s cries” [461], and fægnum stefnum, “doomed voices” [463]). The noun occurs roughly 60 times in the corpus; the verb 17 times (DOE).

In the Old English corpus, cirm is often negative, applied to the tortures of hell or the terror of Judgment Day, and indicates a particularly loud sound (DOE, Lucas). According to the DOE, the noun means “shout, cry, shriek” or “noise of non-human origin, clamour.” The Egyptian cirm is obviously threatening, the meaningless cries of men who, like a raging storm, lash out in terror as the waters close over their heads. Even the visual horror of blood mingling with water maintains sonic affiliations: this line is a rare example of internal rhyme in Old English poetry (flod blod gewod). The end of the Egyptian threat is marked by the silencing of their voices and cirm, metaphorically a silencing of the army’s advance against the Israelites.

Given the negative associations with noise in both medieval and modern sound theory, that the Egyptian defeat is accompanied by their terrible cirm may not seem particularly surprising. Strikingly, this is not the only such noise in the poem. Near the beginning of the poem, the Israelites celebrate their initial escape from Egypt by producing not just any noise, but cirm. On the third day, after the pillar of cloud has appeared, the Israelites awaken with trumpets, and seeing the pillar,

Folc wæs on salum,

hlud herges cyrm.

[The people were joyful, loud was the noise of the army. (106b-107a; emphasis added)]

If cirm is threatening, loud noise, associated with difference and violence, why would the Israelites produce it?  I would like to suggest that cirm suggests not merely loud noise, but crowd noise. The Israelites’ cirm is not an assertion of difference, or the meaningless babble of a drowning, almost non-human army, but an assertion of triumphant plenitude. Their joyful cirm is a fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham, which the poet will remind us of later in the poem (435-442). Just as God promised Abraham innumerable offspring, his support of the Israelites in their exodus signals that they will continue to be a multitude (as they certainly are in this battle, in which they have 600,000 fighting men (224-233).


The Junius Manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Junius 11, p. 81.

In fact, the Israelites’ triumphant crowd noise is echoed at the end of the poem as well.  After the defeat of the Egyptians, who make terrible cirm as they perish in the Red Sea (460b-467), the Israelites issue more celebratory sound, this time transformed from crowd noise to harmonious music:

Æfter þam wordum –    werod wæs on salum

sungon sigebyman     (segnas stodon),

fægerne sweg

[After these words – the troop was joyful – victorious trumpets sang a beautiful sound (battle-standards stood). (565-67a; emphasis added)]

The Israelites’ cirm (107), which they produced while on salum (joyful), is balanced and echoed by the celebratory sounds of the end of the poem, also produced by a people who are on salum (565). Whatever threat the Israelites’ assertion of plenitude and cirm may have made possible is mitigated by replacing that cirm (noise) with a beautiful sound (fægerne sweg), a harmonious, if also loud and multiple, expression.

According to Attali, music can be used to produce order, but “noise is violence: it disturbs. To make noise is to interrupt a transmission, to disconnect, to kill. It is a simulacrum of murder” (26). In this sense, the Israelites’ crowd noise in the desert is violent – it threatens the order of the Egyptians, or the hierarchy the Egyptians have sought to impose on the Israelites in their captivity. But because this story ends in the triumph of the Israelites, told from the point of view of their Christian descendants, it celebrates this assertion of communal power and communal violence without fully othering them. The true violence is inflicted on the Egyptians by God in the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to reassert their normativity, their cohesion, their power, and their non-otherness. While the drowning Egyptians produce cirm, it is silenced because the cirm of the Israelites has conquered them. Noise, or at least cirm, is therefore not merely negative or disruptive; it is a powerful claim to be blessed by God, an assertion of belonging rather than a boundary crossing.

Featured Image:Detail of a miniature of the plague of hail (Exodus 9:22-25), Add MS 15277, f. 7r 

Jordan Zweck is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She specializes in early medieval vernacular literature and culture, especially Old English, and is interested in documentary culture, media studies, and sound studies. She is currently completing a book on Anglo-Saxon epistolarity and early English media, examining the representation of letters in vernacular texts such as letters from heaven, hagiography, and poetry. She is also working on a second book on sound, noise, and silence in Anglo-Saxon England, a portion of which is forthcoming in Exemplaria. Zweck is a recipient of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for the Humanities’ First Book Award, has held a resident fellowship at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at UW-Madison, and has won several teaching awards.

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The Amplification of Muted Voices: Notes on a Recitation of the Adhan

Image courtesy of author

Where do we begin?

On Tuesday January 13th, 2015, my first-year students and I gathered for the second meeting of our seminar, “Soundscapes: Artistic, Social, and Biological Approaches to Acoustic Environments.” We were just a few steps away from the iconic Duke chapel, almost in its shadow.

The chapel is an example of a revivalist architectural style known as “Collegiate Gothic.” Its steps were constructed with soft stone, intended to wear down quickly and provide an accelerated impression of age and prestige. The chapel’s cruciform blueprint is an unambiguous symbol of its Methodist Christian roots, as is the university’s motto: “eruditio et religio” (“erudition and religion”). In true Gothic revivalist style, the phrase is a Latin translation of a line from an 18th-century, English-language Methodist hymn titled “Sanctified Knowledge.”


duke chapel

On Tuesday, January 13th—the second day of my Soundscapes seminar—Duke’s Office of Communications announced that the Islamic call to prayer, the adhan, would sound from a bell tower of its iconic chapel in Durham, North Carolina. According to a press release, Duke’s chapel administrators and Muslim Students Association felt the three-minute long,  “moderately amplified” recitation “represents a larger commitment to religious pluralism” on campus and that the sound of the adhan “connects the university to national trends in religious accommodation.”

The story was picked up by WRAL, the television news outlet based in nearby Raleigh. The web-based stories included a photo of the student slated to be the muezzin, the person appointed to recite the call to prayer. In the photo, the student was shown rehearsing from the bell tower. I read the announcement just before walking to class and thought the event would be a historic opportunity for my students and I to make field recordings of their university soundscape.

Where do we begin?

The adhan was scheduled to take place on the afternoon of Friday, January 16th.  On Wednesday, January 7th—a week before the announcement of the adhan at Duke—twelve people were murdered during an attack on the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Ostensibly, the murders were committed on behalf of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as a retaliation for the newspaper’s cartoon depiction of the prophet Mohammed.

Image of "Je Suis Charlie" solidarity demonstrations in Hamburg, Germany, by Flickr user Konrad Lembcke

Image of “Je Suis Charlie” solidarity demonstrations in Hamburg, Germany, by Flickr user Konrad Lembcke

Where do we begin?

Islamic theology posits that the adhan is not music.  It is recited, not sung. Likewise, the text of the Qu’ran is not poetry. These sacred texts are certainly musical and poetic, but they are neither music nor poetry. These theoretical distinctions have complex and profound implications: more than soundscapes or sound art or acoustemology, the Islamic premise underlying recitations of the adhan and Qu’ran provoked my students to reconsider entire constellations of historical, cultural, linguistic, political, and—indeed—spiritual phenomena.

My students and I conducted a survey in which they asked classmates to identify a recording of the adhan. Only 2 out of 48 students recognized it as a recitation of the Islamic call to prayer; most guessed it was “Arab” or “Middle Eastern” music, but it seemed universally familiar as a “soundtrack” for a film sequence. One student who had lived in Morocco recognized the adhan immediately; another recognized it as the sound of his Lebanese grandmother’s alarm clock, automated to remind her to pray. We became acquainted with Cairo in One Breath, a documentary film project about post-revolutionary Egypt’s 2010 Adhan Unification Project, an effort to “replace individual muezzins with a single voice, broadcast to Cairo’s [thousands of] mosques from a radio station.”

BilalWe also became familiar with the mythology of the first muezzin: Bilal, who was born in Mecca to Abyssinian slaves—in other words, a black man who was freed from slavery.

Where do we begin?

On Wednesday January 14th, the Reverend Franklin Graham posted a reaction to Duke’s announcement on his Facebook account. Franklin is the son of evangelical Baptist preacher Billy Graham, close friend and advisor to American presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush and known as “America’s pastor.” Franklin Graham is a resident of High Point, North Carolina (an hour’s drive from Duke) whose salary from tax-exempt, non-profit religious organizations is reported to be $880,000 per year.


Graham’s post “went viral,” and his threat of financial sanctions—aimed squarely at donors and alumni—seemed to land on its mark. Within hours, Duke’s proposed adhan recitation became the subject of a flood of media coverage, and the university received “credible threats” of violence; public relations and financial concerns were quickly compounded by “safety concerns.” My students and I—whose safety was being threatened—wondered whether the phrase “safety concerns” was a euphemism for terrorism, or vice versa.

On Thursday January 15, the university’s administration announced that they were canceling the planned recitation from the chapel bell tower. Instead, the adhan would be recited just outside the chapel, at the top of the steps leading to the chapel’s front doors. Franklin Graham celebrated the decision—again, on Facebook.


Later in the day, Richard Hays, the dean of the Duke Divinity School, released a letter outlining his objections to the proposed recitation. Hays’ letter revealed a somewhat obscure but significant division between the Divinity School and the chapel administration, each of which see themselves—in their own ways—as custodians of Duke’s Christian image. For the Divinity School administration, the chapel is a symbol of the university’s Christian identity. For the chapel administration, its Christian heritage is an aspect of a fundamentally pluralistic identity.

It is worth pausing here to emphasize that the controversy—now national in scope—was provoked by the mere prospect of sound. More specifically, a sound amplified at “moderate volume.”

By this point, the student muezzin and his family requested that his photo and name be removed; like the university, the young man and his family expressed “safety concerns.” Duke removed his image and name from the official online version of the announcement immediately. WRAL, the Raleigh television station, have still not removed the student’s image or name from their website.

Screen Capture of WRAL's website by author

Screen Capture of WRAL’s website by author

Where do we begin?

On the morning of Friday, January 16th?

The adhan was scheduled to take place at 1PM. At 12:30, I met two of my students—Tanner Waters and Jee Yoon—near the chapel. A large crowd was already gathering. Tanner, Jee, and I equipped ourselves with identical digital audio recorders so we could make a trio of stereo recordings, each from a distinct position; later, we would synchronize the recordings, mixing them in different ways to experiment with sonic “versions” of the event.

A half-dozen news vans were parked around the circular driveway leading to the chapel, their satellite antennas projecting into the clear blue sky. This was news. The news’ cameras were arranged on tripods in a straight line at the rear of the crowd; university security were maintaining a perimeter around the chapel that kept broadcast media at a distance. As I approached with my headphones on and my audio recorder in my hand, a chapel staff member asked mildly, “Excuse me, sir. Are you with the media?” I smiled and shook my head. No.

Image courtesy of author

Photo by Elysia Su, The Duke Chronicle

A small PA sat at the top of the steps. Very small. There were no cables attached to it, and a small radio antenna extended from the top. It took me a few minutes to realize that this was the amplification, the moderate “loudspeaker” for the adhan. It took me another moment to realize the student muezzin would not appear: instead, he would transmit his recitation remotely. I was told later that he was just behind the closed doors of the chapel. Like so many recitations of the adhan, the transmission, amplification, and conceptual layers of it seemed uncannily like a sound art installation.

We all faced the loudspeaker, waiting for sounds to happen. The crowd went from murmurs to whispers, then silent. After a few seconds, the voices of members of the Muslim Students Association began to broadcast from the loudspeaker.

A young man’s voice introduced the adhan—a brief, prosaic context for what we would hear. Then a woman’s voice (also young) offered a literal English translation of the the adhan’s Arabic text. She spoke plainly, without the melodic contours of a recitation.

Now, before sharing recording of the Duke student muezzin’s recitation, I offer a bit of context—not an explanation or translation, but a comparative musical example. First, let’s listen to an iconic recitation style—albeit with a bit of YouTube-style hyperbole—recorded in Medina, Saudi Arabia. This recitation lasts four minutes—a fairly typical length of time for a complete recitation.

Now, let’s listen to the entire recitation of the adhan at the Duke chapel.


The prevailing quality of the Duke recitation is extraordinarily subdued. It is a vocal expression of the “moderate” sound and Muslim identity at the center of the controversy. At one minute and thirty seconds, it is less than half as long as most recitations.

Where do we begin?

Perhaps we might analyze this adhan as a peculiar instance of acousmatic sound: the student muezzin, like Pythagoras or the Wizard of Oz behind a curtain, was separated or dissociated from a discernible source by a curious bit of technology. When I asked Omid Safi, the director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center, about this aspect of the story—the unseen and moderate voice of the student—he responded that for Muslims at Duke, the entire episode was about “safety and inclusion.”

Screencapture of comments underneath a broadcast about the Duke adnan, DATE

Author’s screencapture of comments underneath a broadcast about the Duke adhan.

Safi is a Duke alum. He studied there as undergraduate, co-founding the Muslim Students Association as a freshman, and went on to earn his Masters and PhD degrees at Duke. Since returning as director of the Islamic Studies Center two and a half years ago, he has been vocal and visible in the mass media. Safi himself has been labeled a “radical Muslim professor” by white conservatives and subjected to online “takedown articles,” particularly surrounding this event. Safi told me,

Part of the reason why … there was amplification but no person in sight [was] that people were scared. And it sounds hysterical … In retrospect, knowing what took place in Chapel Hill a few weeks later, [it was] not so unreasonable.

On Tuesday February 10, 2015, three Muslim college students—Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salah—were murdered in their Chapel Hill home, just a twenty-minute drive from Duke. Less than a year earlier, Yusor Abu-Salha had been interviewed by her third-grade teacher for the StoryCorps oral history project.

Click on image to hear Story Corps interview

Click on image to hear Story Corps interview


At horrifying moments like these, I think to myself, “This is why people pray.”

I was deeply ambivalent about discussing the murders with my students. After speaking to a handful of students individually and discreetly, I found most of them were completely unaware of the murders. I wondered—mostly silently, to myself—what impact the news might have on them, then decided to share the story obliquely: I discussed StoryCorps (“listening is an act of love”) in class, an important resource for those of us interested in oral history and I concluded by mentioning the recording of Yusor Abu-Salha. I never asked if they listened to Yusor’s voice, and I cannot know how they might have been affected. I simply did not know what to ask, nor what to say.

Less than one year later, in September, I surveyed my next cohort of incoming freshman. Less than half of them knew anything about the adhan controversy. Among the few who had heard something about it, the event had already acquired dubious mythological qualities: in one account, Muslim students were forced to move their call to prayer from the chapel tower to the nearby Sara Duke Gardens.

Analyses of the event varied considerably. In an op-ed for Duke’s student newspaper titled “Deconstructing the National Fear of Duke’s Adhan,” freshman Eidan Jacob—an Israeli Jew—offered a brilliant context and synthesis, expressing “surprise and disappointment” that the adhan was “so poorly received.” He observed that in his hometown of Haifa, “recitations of the adhan are simply part of the soundscape.”

A broad cultural and political context reveals that xenophobia and—more specifically—Islamophobia, remain cultural common sense in the post-9/11 United States. Both supporters and opponents of the adhan at Duke were disappointed by the controversy, and I do not discern a tidy moral to the story.

The sounds and discourse of the adhan at Duke suggest a narrative preoccupied with “decibels and debate,” but the subtle dynamics and textures of thoughtful, moderate conversation suggest an audible alternative to the loudness and noise of mass media discourse. The diverse qualities of the voices in this story—musical and otherwise—are more than poetic metaphors: the “voices of moderates” and “moderate-sounding voices” deserve close attention; regardless of the causes or motives underlying their subdued tones, their very quietness demands nuanced, high-fidelity listening. The literal and metaphorical amplification of voices might be a distraction from more important matters of range and intimacy.

Where do we begin?

In May 2015, the Duke chapel was closed for restoration. It is scheduled to reopen in May 2016. 

Plans for a weekly adhan recitation elsewhere on the Duke campus are under consideration.

Featured Image by Elysia Su, The Duke Chronicle

David Font-Navarrete is an artist, musician, and ethnomusicologist. He is currently a Lecturing Fellow at Duke University’s Thompson Writing Program.

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Tuning Into the “Happy Am I” Preacher: Researching the Radio Career of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux



Welcome to the second installment of our Thursday series spotlighting endangered radio archives across the United States, promoting the work of the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF), which is part of the National Recording Reservation Plan of the Library of Congress. Our series kicked off two weeks ago with this post by Josh Garrett-Davis exploring both the history of Native American radio and new ways of thinking about it, and the series will conclude with a piece next week by the University of Michigan’s Derek Vaillant about radio recordings in immediate need of preservation in Detroit.

Between possible archives and endangered ones, we have an article about an archive that has begun to speak after long years of silence. Below, Professor Suzanne Smith of George Mason University gives us a preview of her research into a radio evangelist who was among the most prominent African Americans of his day, yet has been largely forgotten. Smith’s fascinating work not only revisits Elder Michaux as a historical figure, but also gives us a clear sense of how a project in radio reservation relies not only on institutional resources, but also on personal outreach. As many of us who are part of the preservation project are learning, media history lives on in storage units, basements and lockers, preserved by collectors, churches and communities that only individual connections can truly reach.

— Special Editor Neil Verma

In October 1934, the Washington Post published a feature about Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux in which it boldly declared that the “radio evangelist extraordinary, is the best known colored man in the United States today.” At the time, Elder Michaux, known as the “Happy Am I” Preacher, had a national radio show on the CBS network that broadcast his ministry of happiness and holiness to over twenty-five million listeners each week.

Like many popular evangelists of his era, Elder Michaux promoted his image as one of God’s prophets, presciently envisioning that radio could revolutionize the purview of modern evangelicalism. Michaux first used portable radio equipment to broadcast his holiness revivals in the mid to late 1920s in his hometown of Newport News and these religious programs were among the first of their kind in the United States. By 1929, Michaux moved to Washington, D.C. in the hopes of expanding his mission.

As an African American, Michaux initially had difficulty convincing local D.C. radio outlets to put him on the air. Eventually, he persuaded James S. Vance, local owner of WJSV, to broadcast his weekly revivals. When the CBS network bought WJSV in 1932, the budding evangelist achieved a national audience in the millions.

409x600The key to Michaux’s success was his ability to combine his preaching with snappy, upbeat gospel songs that reminded listeners that a holy life leads to a happy life, a message that resonated with Americans navigating the economic trials of the Great Depression. By the late 1930s, the BBC invited Michaux to broadcast his program on its network and listeners around the globe soon began to tune into his WJSV broadcasts in via shortwave hookup. These opportunities allowed the charismatic preacher to reach a vast international radio audience that extended from Europe to Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. That Michaux’s broadcasts, like his story, have disappeared from radio history has impoverished our sense of the role of race in the soundscape of the era.

My current book project examines Michaux’s extraordinary life and career as a radio evangelist. For this post, I want to explain both Michaux’s significance to the history of religious radio as well as African American history; and how my research has led me to join the Radio Preservation Task Force in an effort to preserve the surviving recordings this important figure, but understudied, figure.

In spite of his many accomplishments, Elder Michaux has been largely overlooked in the histories of religious radio and African American religion. Scholarship on religious radio from the 1920s and 1930s tends to focus on figures such as Father Charles Coughlin and Aimee Semple McPherson with only passing mention of African American preachers such as Michaux. In the history of African American religion in the 1930s, Michaux tends to be overshadowed by scholarship on other major figures such as Father Divine and his Peace Mission Movement and Sweet Daddy Grace and his United House of Prayer. Although Michaux’s ministry was often categorized as a religious cult in the popular press of the time, his Gospel Spreading Radio Church of God was firmly a part of the black Holiness movement and continues to have ten active congregations today.

Elder_Solomon_Michaux__pictopia_com_Throughout his career, which began in the late 1920s and extended until his death in 1968, Elder Michaux defied the odds and challenged boundaries of race, theology and politics to become one of the most successful religious leaders and media celebrities of his time. As early as 1926, Michaux, whose Holiness ministry openly welcomed all races, was arrested for baptizing whites and blacks together. Once established in Washington, D.C., Michaux led annual mass baptisms in the Potomac River and later at Griffith Stadium that drew tens of thousands of followers. At the height of his fame, from the 1930s through the 1950s, Michaux was regularly invited to the White House to consult with Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower about the racial issues of the day. By the early 1960s, Michaux engaged in public debates with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, about the direction of the civil rights struggle.

My book argues that Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux is critical to our understanding of how religious leaders used the mass medium of radio to literally “sell” evangelical faith movements in modern America. Elder Michaux was the first to fully develop the concept of a “Radio Church,” which offered official membership to followers and created one of the first, if not the first, virtual religious communities in modern America. A true evangelist, Michaux sought to reach believers and potential converts wherever they were and knew that the radio could facilitate his mission in revolutionary ways. In an interview in 1938, Michaux explained, “I wanted to give people religion over the air so they might have it at home. Then they couldn’t have an excuse for not going to church. They couldn’t say that they were tired or didn’t have the right clothes. They could get God and his teachings right in their own parlor.” Most significantly, Michaux’s entrepreneurial skill at marketing his Gospel Spreading Church of God through the radio was simultaneously in service to his race and racially transgressive in ways that complicate our understanding of how modern religious movements navigated Jim Crow segregation.

So how can we actually give an account of Michaux’s contributions? Researching radio programming from the 1920s and 1930s presents a number of challenges for any historian because recordings of broadcasts from this period are rare. Fortunately, Elder Michaux began his career on WJSV, one of the most powerful stations in Washington in the 1930s (which became WTOP, the most popular local news radio station in Washington, D.C. today). The first director of WJSV under CBS ownership was Harry Butcher, who had the foresight in September 1939 to record an entire day of programming, which is remarkable considering this was accomplished without the use of magnetic recording tape. Although this collection does not include Elder Michaux’s program, it is a valuable audio snapshot of the radio era in which he thrived.

WJSVSheetMusicMy quest to locate recordings of Elder Michaux’s broadcast has led me to destinations as far away as the BBC archives in London, which houses two recordings of Michaux’s first British broadcasts; and as close as the main branch of the current Gospel Spreading Church of God here in Washington.

In the past two years, I have also developed meaningful relationships with congregants of the church, who have begun to be willing to share their private archive of recordings. During one oral history interview, one church member, who is 92-years old, gave me a reel-to-reel tape from Elder Michaux’s funeral service, which was broadcast in October 1968. Another elder member from Newport News sent me recordings of Michaux preaching at Lorton Prison in Lorton, Virginia in the 1950s. Most significantly, I recently met the current sound engineer at the church, who has been a member since the 1940s and has a large archive of reel-to-reel tapes of Michaux’s radio broadcasts from the 1950s and 1960s. At the height of his fame in the early 1930s, Elder Michaux broadcast his religious services daily and never missed a week of broadcasting until his death in 1968. The church has only kept a fraction of these broadcasts. Nevertheless, a significant number of them exist and are housed in the church’s private storage. I am currently trying to assess the scope of the church’s collection, which has involved reaching out to church members in Philadelphia, New York City, and Newport News, Virginia. I am also trying to investigate grants that might support my efforts to digitize the tapes as soon as possible since they are at risk of deterioration in the church storage facilities.

My research on Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux’s career has convinced me that more work needs to be done to pursue the preservation of African American religious radio broadcasts in general. The work of the Radio Preservation Task Force can support this mission, but it will also involve grassroots outreach to established African American churches. Many of these churches regularly broadcast their services and may have their own private archives of recordings that can offer us an invaluable glimpse at the aural history of African American religious practices in the twentieth century.

Moreover, through my ongoing relationships with the congregants of Elder Michaux’s Gospel Spreading Church of God, I have developed a deeper appreciation for the importance of personal outreach to African American religious communities in the service of preserving the history of religious radio. The efforts of the Radio Preservation Task Force are critically important in terms of identifying existing institutional archives, but only through individual connections with these vital, but often overlooked minority communities, will we be able to discover and preserve these treasures of our radio past.


Suzanne E. Smith is Professor of History in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. She is the author of Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Harvard University Press, 1999) and To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death (Belknap Press, 2010). She is currently working on her third book, tentatively titled The ‘Happy Am I’ Preacher: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux.

All images courtesy of the author.

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